Microsoft’s Satya Nadella is Literally a One in a Billion Immigrant

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One thing I would say that defines me is that I love to learn. I get excited about new things. I buy more books than I read….I signed up for more online courses that I can actually finish..I believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things”- Satya Nadella

The disproportionate number of Indian immigrants (mostly men) in tech is the basis of a great many unfortunate stereotypes. However, Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization, has done the research, and the numbers don’t lie. Indians (from the sub-Continent, not the first Americans) make up less than 1% of the American population, yet they have founded about 15% of Silicon Valley’s recent start-ups.

However, the man with the highest profile from this group is not the leader of a start-up but rather heads Microsoft. Satya Nadella succeeded Steve Ballmer, who took over when Bill Gates, the company founder, gave up the reins. After a tech demi-god and his hand-picked first successor, Nadella could easily have rubbed people the wrong way and been pushed out – politics at a large corporation like Microsoft are hardball.

However, he keeps the support of the people he leads. “Even as the company lags behind rivals in smartphones and tablets, and after implementing the biggest layoffs in Microsoft history, he retains that backing. He’s also presided over a changing of the guard on the board, replaced longtime executives and scaled back some of the hardware work of the more boisterous CEO he replaced, Steve Ballmer.” The reason for his success, I believe, come from the fact that he isn’t entirely American.

Satya Nadella, Indian Immigrant

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A young Satya Nadella-Image Source: Twitter

People who emigrate after childhood inevitably bring the values, practices and perspectives of their first country with them to their second. Nadella grew up in a prosperous family (dad was pretty high up in the government bureaucracy) where success is expected. He is a product of the Indian as well as American educational systems. He got his break in 1965, two years before he was born, when the US revamped in immigration policy that until then had favored Europeans. From 1965 on, talent has played a much bigger role.

So after a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Mangalore University, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for graduate school. The presumption back home was that he would get his Masters and return to India. Like a lot of Indians his age in the US, though, the opportunities in America kept many of the new engineers and technologies in the States.

“It was never a part of the plan to stay,” Nadella’s 76-year-old father, Bukkapuram Nadella Yugandhar, told Bloomberg “Then at that time, things were booming. He got a job there and went on and on and on.” He spent some time at Sun Microsystems and then joined Microsoft, where he climbed the corporate ladder.

But what were the Indian values that have made him so successful in America? It is dangerous to generalize about a billion people, but there are traits that are valued in some cultures more so than others. While it may be easy to find 50 million exceptions to any rule in India, that doesn’t diminish the fact that there are certain values in the culture.

The Qualities and Values of Satya Nadella

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Image Source: DNA India

First and foremost, I think, Nadella learned quiet effectiveness. “In 1992, Richard Tait, a Microsoft executive who went on to create the game Cranium, told a member of his staff, Jeff Teper, to find a job candidate with three characteristics: ‘Smart, gets sh-t done, doesn’t piss off other people.’ Teper, now a Microsoft vice president tapped by Nadella to oversee corporate strategy, said he advised Tait to interview the young Indian.” Indian culture frowns on braggarts, perhaps more so than American society does.

“Our egos are always in check,” said Ramana Jonnala, a Hyderabad native and CEO of Coho Data Inc. in Sunnyvale, California. “We don’t think we are the second coming of Christ and can boil the ocean. We know our part.”

Another trait was drive, ambition. That is not foreign to Americans, but the competition in India is with three times as many people. Getting to America and succeeding here was the cherry on top for most Indian engineers and technological innovators. Pramod Chandrasekhar, who attended Hyderabad Public School (an elite private school) with Nadella, said “America was an aspiration for most of us. It meant having arrived, doing well in your career, being in, at that point in time, the greatest place in the world.”

His school also had an effect, that may not be quite so Indian. Hyderabad Public School is modeled after Eton College (which prepares young men for university), in England. One of the things about Hyderabad that encourages a meritocracy is the use of first names only.

Ash Ashutosh, CEO of Actifio Inc. in Waltham, Massachusetts, and a Hyderabad native, explained, “If you walk into one of those schools you see hundreds of those kids walk out in the same uniform, and you can’t distinguish if a kid is an ultrawealthy or middle class, you can’t differentiate me from the kid of the local Bill Gates. You are hanging out with a cross section of folks — which is not common in India.” It means the best of the best compete without the advantage or disadvantage of family connections. This gives its graduates a sense that talent rather than pedigree and achievement rather than contacts matter most.

That educational system tends to favor facts over feelings, data over desire “We are analytical about every problem,” Ashutosh said. “We tend to want a data-driven approach.”

Another trait is patience, the ability to take the long-term view. Americans are, without a doubt, the world’s greatest short-term thinkers, but we don’t do so well with things that take time and develop slowly. Nadella learned these things as a kid playing cricket. In its purest form, the Test Match, two innings are played, with all eleven players on both sides batting two times each. It takes five days, and it can end in a draw. No successful cricket player is in a hurry. And Nadella certainly is not.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties when I was growing up in Hyderabad, it was a bit more laid-back, and that gave you time to think about things differently without perhaps being caught up in the narrow approach to one’s journey through life.” -Satya Nadella

Because of that, his career didn’t sink with less-than-successful efforts. “His first projects included Microsoft’s ill-fated interactive-TV product and the Windows NT operating system.”

Furthermore, there is always something new to learn. “During his first years at Microsoft, Nadella impressed his coworkers and managers alike by commuting every weekend from Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, all the way to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to finish his MBA. He’d finally graduate in 1997.”

That paid dividends; “in 1999, Nadella landed his first executive role as vice president of Microsoft bCentral, a set of web services for small businesses that included hosted website hosting and email.”

“Then, in 2001, Nadella rose to corporate VP of Microsoft Business Solutions. The group had been formed through a series of acquisitions, including Great Plains, which made accounting software for small and midsize businesses. The group was also building a cloud-based CRM system to compete with Salesforce. Eventually, all these products would be rebranded as ‘Dynamic’s.”

By 2007, Nadella was senior VP of Microsoft Online Services, responsible for the search engine Bing, Xbox Live gaming and early online versions of Microsoft Office and the Xbox Live gaming service.

In February 2011, Nadella became president of the Server and Tools Division, managing data centers, like Windows Server and the SQL Server database, and the Microsoft Azure cloud platform.

Nadella: Smart, gets sh-t done, doesn’t piss off other people – being from India helped.

Now See this Short Interview with Satya Nadella:

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Satya Nadella: His first interview as CEO of Microsoft

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